Sandwiched between two grizzled veterans of many a Flèche Wallonne, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and third placed Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge) on the winner's podium atop the Mur de Huy, 22-year-old Julian Alaphilippe's runner-up spot in the mid-week Ardennes Classic could hardly fail to impress.
In a Classic like Flèche Wallonne where experience is traditionally considered a vital ingredient to success – it takes some riders years before mastering how they can perform the best on the Mur's devastatingly challenging slopes – Alaphilippe is clearly learning much faster than most. And as he told reporters afterward, although second is always a defeat no matter how you look at it, "for my first time performance here, I can't help but be pleased."
Alaphilippe was at pains to emphasise that his fine personal result had not come because of any personally inspired last-minute alteration to team orders at Etixx-QuickStep. As he said, his initial goal, and Etixx-QuickStep's, had been to ensure that [teammate] World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski was "well positioned for the final ascent of the Mur."
"I hadn't thought about going for the sprint, we wanted Michal in that good position," the second year pro recounted. "But after that happened there was a moment on the climb where the bunch began to waver. And over the race radio, my sports director was shouting 'go, go'."
There was a point, he recounted, where he even saw himself adding a one-day WorldTour victory to his sole victory to date, a stage in the Tour de L'Ain last year in his debut season as a pro.
"I thought in the last 200 metres I was going really well, but then Valverde eased ahead and got three or four metres, and I knew I was beaten," he recounted.
However, he promised that after the biggest result of his career to date, Flèche Wallonne is a race he definitely wants to return to.
"Looking round me at the podium, I could see there were some really important riders up there with me. I haven't been beaten by just anybody. That gives me a lot of hope to keep going in the future."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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